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Solidify the gains, U.S. tells Iraqis

American officials press lawmakers to seize on the relative lull in violence to achieve political reconciliation.

December 03, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Top U.S. diplomatic and military officials Sunday urged Iraq's lawmakers to speed up political progress, a sign of Washington's concern that security gains could be squandered amid legislative infighting.

The comments were reminiscent of those heard repeatedly in the spring and summer as pressure mounted on Iraq's parliament to pass legislation considered crucial to national reconciliation.

Also familiar was the political discord in parliament. Now, as before, lawmakers are divided into sectarian blocs, and boycotts and walkouts continue to hamper movement on major bills. None of the legislation that U.S. officials focused on this year has won approval. What is different now, and what gives U.S. officials a new sense of urgency, is the reduced violence across the country, particularly in the capital, Baghdad. They say greater violence will return if parliament does not use the calmer environment to improve essential services nationwide, forge ties with local and provincial leaders, and sort out disputes among Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds to facilitate progress on key bills. The pending legislation would manage Iraq's oil wealth and lift rules limiting employment opportunities for former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, who served as the ambassador to Iraq in 2004, said six days of touring Iraq had left him encouraged by the improved security.

"Now, progress on political reconciliation . . . is needed to consolidate the gains made thus far," he said at a news conference. "If progress is not made on these fronts, we risk falling back to the more violent patterns of the past."

In separate comments, the No. 2 commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, said the decrease in violence showed things "are clearly moving in the right direction." But Odierno, speaking on CNN's "Late Edition," echoed Negroponte's comments that the national government should pick up the pace of reconciliation.

"I think now we have security at a level where we have to now look at other things: the increase of services to the people, the increase of political accommodation at the local level, the provincial level," Odierno said.

Both officials said they saw signs of progress on the national level. Negroponte expressed optimism that the oil bill and the so-called de-Baathification law would pass. Odierno noted "some movement with some laws" inside parliament. "But obviously we have not made the progress we want to yet," he said.

Odierno also said the U.S. military had made headway Sunday on one major issue: persuading Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government to move more quickly to bring volunteer security workers onto Iraqi government payrolls. The volunteers are known as "concerned local citizens" and are a result of U.S. military efforts to recruit civilians, many of them former insurgents, to work alongside American and Iraqi troops.

There are tens of thousands of such volunteers, many of them Sunnis, and American troops have complained that Maliki has balked at bringing many of them into the Iraqi security forces.

Odierno said the prime minister had agreed at a meeting Sunday to "steps toward reconciliation with these concerned local citizen groups. I think that's a big step forward for us."

He did not elaborate.

Later, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said Maliki had agreed to incorporate volunteer forces in numbers based on estimated needs from the field. He said those not incorporated into security forces would be rehabilitated and trained for civil service jobs.

Dabbagh said volunteers would be vetted on an individual basis, not in groups. This appears to be an attempt to head off what Maliki has expressed concern over: that groups of armed volunteers could become militias and turn their guns on one another or on Iraqi security forces once U.S. troops leave.

Volunteers will be permitted to work only in their communities of origin, Dabbagh said.

Abbas Bayati, a member of Maliki's Shiite bloc in parliament, confirmed the plan. He said there was no timetable for its implementation. "However, the will exists," Bayati said.

There are 60,000 volunteers currently working for the U.S. military for about $300 a month, and about 17,000 more are interested in joining the volunteer force.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have credited the drive with bringing down violence in areas where insurgents and militiamen once held sway. But they say if the volunteers are not given paid jobs by the Iraqi government, they could return to their old ways once U.S. troops leave.

Signs of the violence still haunting Iraq were clear Sunday, particularly in Diyala province north of Baghdad.

Police said three women in a village 18 miles north of the provincial capital, Baqubah, were stabbed to death after they refused to marry three men with the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq. Police said gunmen circled the village, dragged the women from their homes and killed them.

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